Tree to 15 m, though often not exceeding 5 m in cultivation; densely branched. Bark brown and scabrous. Branchlets green. Leaves deciduous, chartaceous, 5–13 × 7–16 cm, palmately 5-lobed (rarely 7-lobed), largely glabrous, but for the tufts of hair in the vein axils of the lower surface, margins minutely serrate, lobe apex acute to acuminate or mucronate; petiole 2.8–6 cm long, glabrous. Inflorescence terminal, paniculate. Flowers 5-merous, usually dioecious; sepals light green, ovate to oblong, petals light green, obovate to oblong, stamens 8, inserted inside the nectar disc. Samaras 2–2.5 cm long, pale yellow when mature, wings spreading obtusely. Flowering in May, fruiting in September (China). (van Gelderen et al. 1994; van Gelderen & van Gelderen 1999; Xu et al. 2008).
Distribution China Southern Anhui, Fujian, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang
Habitat Montane forest between 200 and 1400 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note Included by van Gelderen et al. (1994) Acer elegantulum var. macrurum W.P. Fang & P.L. Chiu has smaller samaras (1–1.5 cm long), though this taxon is treated as a synonym by Xu et al. (2008).
Acer elegantulum is one of the more recent introductions in series Sinensia, its affinity to its relatives from China immediately apparent. From A. flabellatum and those close to it that are better known in collections, the posture of the leaves is slightly different, those of A. elegantulum being slightly drooping whereas those of the A. flabellatum, and relatives, are held flat. The leaves of A. elegantulum are also smaller and, in the specimens seen, more deeply and jaggedly lobed, giving a shape suggestive of that of Cannabis sativa. The leaves flush with shiny bronze to deep purple-brown, but become green when mature, with the stems remaining green. The whole plant has a very pendulous habit like other members of series Sinensia.
The species is represented in the major European collections, where it seems to grow well, flowering and fruiting well after 12–15 years, and it is also cultivated in the milder parts of North America. The first introduction seems to have been made in about 1985 from Shanghai Botanic Garden (van Gelderen et al. 1994), while a flourishing tree of over 5 m at Westonbirt derives from a 1986 introduction from Hangzhou Botanical Garden (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu 2003). It soon became available to collectors through the nursery trade. A specimen at Sandling Park, Kent, grown from the Hangzhou introduction was 6 m tall in 2018 (The Tree Register 2018). Plants sourced from Heritage Seedlings grow at the Hoyt Arboretum, Oregon, while a specimen so named, sourced from Piroche Plants Inc. has recently been added to the maple collection at the David C. Lam Asian Garden, Vancouver.